Decision making and the power of choice – why loss shouldn’t hold us back

Do you find decision making easy, or is your power to decide crippled by the knowledge of the loss of the alternatives once you’ve committed to one option?
A friend of mine told me the story recently of a student of hers, who had had the misfortune to lose all her university coursework in a house fire (she was lucky to have survived herself). With a supreme effort, the student was able to do extremely well in her final assignments, but narrowly missed getting a First.
The student asked my friend if she should appeal. My friend replied that she’d have a strong chance of having her degree lifted to a First, but that it would take time and mean her not graduating at the same time as her friends. Which was more important to her?
The student decided to graduate with her friends, and to give the higher grading a miss. When my friend saw the student at the graduation ceremony, the student was having a wonderful time with her friends. She was at peace with her decision.

Decision making as loss

I love this story because it gets to the essence of something I’ve been thinking about recently (thanks to a lovely post by my friend Susan T Blake). Decision making can be so very difficult sometimes, because every decision we make has with it an element of loss.
Sometimes that loss is small (flat white or latte?). But sometimes the choice is far more difficult, as each option has a significant joy, and its loss a significant cost. The student gave up a First – that is a loss. But to choose the First over graduating with friends would have entailed a different loss – the loss of fellowship and shared experience.

The fork in the road

One of the most important concepts in Alexander Technique is that of ‘the fork in the road’, where we find ourselves having a choice between two alternatives.* The most usual one in an Alexander Technique lesson is the choice between the old, familiar way of thinking/moving, and the new and unfamiliar way of thinking/moving. My job as a teacher is to stand at the fork in the road between these two alternatives, and point to the path of the new and unfamiliar, suggesting that it might be worth trying out!
There are, however, other kinds of choices, and other forks in the road. Sometimes someone will present you with a choice (a First or a peer group experience), and ask you to make up your mind which option you want to take. Sometimes you may even present yourself with the choice.
But these choices are sneakier than the one Mr Alexander paints for us. Unlike Alexander’s fork in the road, where the man knows the destination he wishes to reach, in the First/friends choice the destination is not defined. We are being asked (or asking ourselves) to make a choice when we don’t immediately know which one gets us closer to where we want to go.

Decision making and core values

These choices are difficult because the outcomes are not clear. We don’t know what will suit our needs best. And we may be placed (or place ourselves) under pressure to make a decision quickly, before we have had sufficient opportunity to decide which option aligns best with our core values.** And sometimes the difficulty of the choice stems from the fact that it highlights an area where we haven’t really considered what values are most important to us!
So what should we do?
  1. Stop and breathe. No one should expect an instant answer!
  2. Consider the options given. What core values or principles do they represent? For example, a First = academic excellence. Friends = value on social ties and affections.
  3. Check these against your own core values. Which option fits best with your own value structure? Or is this a chance to decide what our core values are?
  4. Decide if there might be any other, better, courses of action. Just because you are presented with two options doesn’t mean there aren’t more options possible…
  5. Choose something and commit to the consequences.
And take note of that last step. Yes, whatever you choose will entail losing the benefits of the choice not taken. My friend’s student didn’t get quite the degree they merited, and that is a real and genuine loss. But what would have been far worse, and far more damaging, would have been to choose an option and then spend time regretting the loss of the other.
And there is one thing that is even worse. Yes, even worse than regret.
Just standing at the crossroads and not ever deciding. That is the most deadening option of all.
*Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.299.
** ‘Core values’ is a term I borrow from life coach and all-round fab guy Tim Brownson. He writes a superb blog at
mage by Kittisak from

The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!


I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin,

No one will die – leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new

This is the second part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Last week we looked at why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. This week we’re exploring the relationship between leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new; how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it.


Last week I told you about how I decided to move past my belief that I was No Good at Sport, and chose to enter the Bristol 10k. I recognised that I had a belief that was limiting me and set myself a goal to help challenge it. But what happened next? Which of these two stories do you think is more true?

Story 1: Jen organised a training programme and stuck to it. She was at all times completely confident of achieving her goal because she was doing the necessary work. On the day of the race, she found it easy.

Story2: Jen didn’t know where to start. She did some research and found training plans and advice. She tried to follow them, but found it hard work, physically and emotionally. Many times she felt like quitting, and she was terrified of getting it wrong and making a fool of herself. Even on the day of the race, she wasn’t completely certain she’d make it.

Worked out which one is the truth yet? Yep, the second. I was leaving a comfort zone and fear of the new was a major problem for me. I felt scared almost every time I went out to train.

The truth of it is that people stay in their comfort zones because they are, well,  comfortable. People like being comfortable. When you try to challenge a belief or behaviour in yourself that you don’t like, you pretty much need to expect it to feel uncomfortable. It may feel odd. It may even feel wrong.

We need to expect it not to feel good. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself because it will, but more often than not you’re going to be dealing with levels of discomfort.

So we recognise that leaving a comfort zone and fear are very closely related. How do we deal with the discomfort? Here are my five big tips:

1. Make sure you’ve chosen a goal that is challenging but still realistic. I, for example, as a non-runner, did not choose to make the London Marathon my first ever race! I chose something that was not going to be easy, but that was still achievable.

2. Have a plan to follow. Do some research, find out how other people typically go about achieving the goal you’ve set, and then modify that to your own circumstances. I was lucky and found a ready-made training programme that I could adapt easily.

Sometimes planning is trickier, and you may not be sure of all the variables you need to consider. in those situations, sometimes it can help to talk to someone who specialises in planning and reasoning. If you need help with the planning aspect of your goal, contact me and I’ll see if I can help you out, or at least point you in the direction of someone else who can.

3. Have a good support network. I had a friend who was incredibly supportive, and who actually ran the race with me. I also had friends and family helping me find the time to train, and just generally cheering me on. Support isn’t essential, but it sure makes things easier.

4. Accountability. If you are worried you might quit or find excuses to dodge the discomfort of trying the new activity/behaviour, you may want to set some consequences to help you stay on track. For example, a friend may ring you each week to check on progress. Or you might try using Stickk, a new website that was created to help people stick with their goals.

5. Be kind to yourself. Recognise that sometimes your ‘lizard brain’ (limbic system) is going to catch up with you and cause you to feel panicked. Just keep breathing, remember that everything is fine and no one is in imminent danger of dying, and let it pass.

This week, if you haven’t yet chosen a goal for the activity or behaviour you want to try/change, set one! Start working out how you are going to achieve it. Do some research. Set some consequences for bailing out. And start. Setting up your support network. And be kind to yourself.

Image by John Kasawa,